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A Times Editorial

American Airlines' $15 bag fee won't fly

Even after the grumbling subsides, a misguided plan to charge airline passengers for their first checked bag will continue to have negative consequences.

American Airlines announced Wednesday it will charge $15 for the first bag a passenger checks, an action no other airline has tried. Travelers responded with annoyance and outrage, and the company's stock dropped nearly 25 percent before the market closed.

We know that economic conditions are difficult and fuel prices are skyrocketing. Certainly airlines have been hit hard — American Airlines posted a $328-million loss in the first quarter. But tacking on $15 to check a bag is not the best way to gain revenue.

Such a fee will inevitably cause travelers to bring more carry-on luggage in an attempt to beat the system. More bags will equal longer security lines, more missed flights and more annoyed passengers, since airport security workers will provide the same level of scrutiny to every bag, no matter how many are sent through the checkpoints, Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.

But the charge will also have less obvious results, said behavioral economist Nathan Berg, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. More flights could be delayed because of the extra time it would take for people to stow and then get those carry-on bags down from the overhead storage bins. And more injuries are likely to occur from falling luggage.

There are ways for airlines to get the same amount of added revenue while avoiding these repercussions. Raising fare prices an equal amount could avoid problems associated with the new fee. And having more surcharges and fees included in the ticket price would allow travelers to better compare the cost of their trip with different airlines.

If airlines want people to travel with less luggage, they could create a refund or voucher system to people who do not check any bags. Berg said people react much more positively to a possible $15 gain than a loss.

It's clear that airlines need more money to survive. Charging higher fares up front will meet that objective without as many negative possibilities.

American Airlines' $15 bag fee won't fly 05/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 4:41pm]
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